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Film / The Wrong Man

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A 1956 docudrama film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on an actual legal case from 1953, as covered in the The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson and an article for Time by Herbert Brean.

Christopher Emmanuel "Manny" Balestrero (Henry Fonda) works as a musician in the Stork Club, a then-famous nightclub of New York City (the Stork Club was active from 1929 to 1965). His wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs some dental work and Manny attempts to convince her insurance company to cover the medical expenses. Once he steps into their office, Manny finds himself accused of robbery. He is apparently a look-alike of an armed robber who has visited the office twice already. Several witnesses are willing to testify against him at trial.

His lawyer Frank O'Connor (Anthony Quayle) decides to build the defense by proving that it is based on mistaken identity. Fortunately for the Balestreros, they were away on vacation at the time of the first robbery. Unfortunately for them, people who could testify on that are either dead or hard to locate. Rose slowly descends into depression to the point where she is institutionalized. While Manny is eventually released as the real robber decides to hit another place and is caught in the act, Rose remains in an apathetic state.

Hitchcock used many of the Real Life locations of the story in the film, and even a couple of the actual witnesses.

The Balestreros kept a low profile for the rest of their lives (Rose died in 1984, Manny in 1998). But O'Connor became famous for this case and used it to relaunch his failing political career. He served as a New York State Senator in 1955, Queens County District Attorney (served 1956-1965), New York City Council President (1966-1968), and a justice of the New York Supreme Court (1969-1986). He died in 1992, due to an accidental fall from a flight of stairs.

Tropes related to the movie:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Manny is cleared, but Rose remains clinically depressed and hospitalized. A title card at the very end states that she recovered two years later, but the final sentence of the same card also said that this suffering really did happen to innocent people who didn't deserve it.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Manny Balestrero is an Italian-American, and his mother is a practicing Catholic. One of the items Manny keeps with him is his rosary beads. Hitchcock himself was a practicing Catholic and this is one of his few films which deal with his faith.
  • Clear My Name: What Manny has to do, though he uses strictly legal means.
  • Creator Cameo: Not really a cameo per se, but Hitchcock appears in silhouette to introduce the film at the beginning.
    • This Is Reality: He filmed one of his traditional cameos (as a Stork Club customer), but elected to leave it out of the film, to emphasize how "every word is true" in this story.
  • Criminal Doppelgänger: There's an armed robber who closely resembles Manny (though it turns out it really wasn't that strong a resemblance in the real case—their hairlines and eyes were similar, but their jawlines didn't match at all).
  • Despair Event Horizon: Rose slips into depression when it becomes clear that they cannot produce any useful witnesses.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero was universally called Manny by people who knew him. When the police first try to get his attention, they call him "Chris", which confuses him.
  • Guilt by Coincidence: Manny so resembles a man, who had twice held up an insurance office, that police are called when Manny unknowingly goes there on business. He is arrested after several witnesses identify him as the robber, and in providing a handwriting sample he misspells a word, which was also misspelled in a note written by the robber.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: The cops insist that "an innocent man has nothing to fear from the law". The film shreds that assumption by showing how the legal, medical, and social stigma from being accused of a crime can ruin an innocent man, his marriage, and his family, while also eating his already low income. And ultimately, while the film does end happily for them, said resolution comes entirely from blind luck, and an "act of God". Ultimately, the legal system can and will crush the innocent.
  • In the Style of: Hitchcock had become fascinated with Italian Neorealism and intended this film as his own take on it, though there are also a few arty touches that link it more with Film Noir.
  • Jitter Cam: A semi-example, with the camera shaking for a little bit when Manny gets locked in the cell, emphasizing his feelings of disorientation over his ordeal.
  • Mistaken Identity: The entire basis for the case.
  • Police Are Useless: As one of his perennial themes, undoubtedly this is one of the reasons Hitchcock was drawn to this story. The police detectives, eager to make an arrest, fall victim to confirmation bias and botch the investigation. If anything, Hitchcock let the NYPD off lightly; in the actual case, detectives searched the Balestrero home, failed to locate any overcoat that looked like the one the witnesses said the robber was wearing, as well as not finding any notebook that could've provided the paper for the stick-up note, but still insisted Manny was guilty.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: As commented by Hitchcock himself in the prologue.
  • Sanity Slippage: Rose.